Bezos, a rich miser when it comes to the poor
Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos made headline news again with the announcement that he donated $10 billion, the biggest private donation in 2020, to a slew of organizations fighting climate change. One of the world’s richest men — Tesla CEO Elon Musk barely edged him for the number one richest spot — Bezos was hailed for his generosity and for putting his checkbook where his passion is in saving the planet. Bezos could certainly afford to plow billions into his pet cause. But he could afford to plow a lot more of his billions into the pockets of America’s soaring number of poor and hungry. Death and a legion of chronic illnesses they suffer are a far more immediate threat to their existence than global warming.
Any sum that Bezos pumps into any cause is still a relative pittance. His wealth tops that of the GDP of 132 nations on the planet. To be exact, Bezos earns $2,500 per second, or $150,000 per minute. He’s well on track to be the world’s first trillionaire by 2026.
Bezos is no different than many uber wealthy. Studies of their giving have repeatedly shown many are miserly. They give slightly more than 1% of their wealth away. Bezos is even stingier. In recent years, he’s given less than 1 percent away. Out of every $100,000, he spends $90.06 on charity. Even Trump, who will never be confused with philanthropist of the year, gave away about 3% of his wealth. Bezos took much heat for his miserliness when his ex-wife, Mackenzie Scott, did a classic “Take that, Jeff!” and doled out billions from her Amazon stock divorce settlement to a wide range of charities. She made clear there would be much more giving to come.
In times past, a plea to Bezos to loosen the spigot on his giving for the battle to end hunger in America and other anti-poverty initiatives probably would have quickly fallen on his deaf ears. After all, the poor, even the hungry poor, no matter how many are children, haven’t exactly been a cause celebre among most Americans, let alone policymakers and politicians, GOP or Democratic. Public references to poverty virtually disappeared from the nation’s vocabulary by the end of the 1960s. The continued existence of so many poor people after a decade of civil rights gains, a rash of initiatives and programs to end poverty, and massive government spending on President Lyndon Johnson’s poverty programs in the 1960s, was ultimate proof to many that tossing money and programs at ending poverty was failed and wasteful.
It seemed to fly squarely in the face of the embedded laissez-faire notion that the poor in America aren’t poor because of any failing of the system, but because of their personal failings. This is not just the hard-bitten attitude of GOP free-market conservatives. It is the attitude of the majority of Americans — including many of those who were poor.
The loud message is that if you’re poor, it’s your fault, don’t blame society, and especially don’t look to government to be the cure.
The super-rich, who could toss more dollars into ending hunger and poverty campaigns, have found a wide array of more headline-grabbing, even chic, causes, from saving charter schools to saving the earth. But even then, Bezos remains the exception among the wealthy with his continued skinflint lid on his personal pocketbook.
COVID has partly changed the game. With the massive health, job and business dislocation it has wrought, the hungry and poor are now in everyone’s face. Lines of cars backed up miles at food giveaways are grim testament to that. Those lines won’t go away anytime soon. Scott, in public statements, was moved enough by the suffering she saw to shell out her billions to groups fighting hunger and poverty.
Bezos has not totally ignored the hungry poor. In April 2020, he donated $100 million to Feeding America to help U.S food banks increase food security in America. But that’s less than a pittance for him, and it was a one-time donation.
Bezos, in putting his heart and a little of his purse in fighting the climate catastrophe, is doing his part in that fight. Now Jeff, put that same heart and even more of your purse behind fighting hunger and poverty in America. You’ll get headlines and applause for that too.
Earl Ofari Hutchinson is an author and political analyst.